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How Does An Optional Service Become An "E-Mail Tax?"

AOL must be feeling a bit picked on at this point. A collection of organizations that starting making noise last week about its upcoming fee-based certified e-mail service has banded together into a coalition of at least 50, mostly non-profit, organizations decrying the service provider's plan to deploy Goodmail's Certified Email as a destructive "e-mail tax."

And AOL has a right to feel singled out since it is far from the first e-mail provider to engage a third party like Bonded Sender, Habeas and Goodmail to provide a fee-based service to authenticate senders. In fact the list is fairly extensive. In addition to Yahoo, which has a similar deal with Goodmail, Microsoft, Earthlink and Google also offer similar services.

In a sense, it's more a testament to the size of AOL's customer base that, suddenly, another such move could spell the demise of the "free and open Internet." When AOL makes a move in the public e-mail realm, everyone feels it.

"E-mail tax" is an emotionally charged term right now and the coalition is making the most of it. But in reality, Certified Email is an optional service. I haven't heard of any taxes that were optional. And last I heard, AOL wasn't changing any of its free services.I'm not sure that these certified sender programs will ever do much to curtail spam. From where I sit, it looks more like a method for large bulk senders, willing to pay a little more, to make sure their messages get in the hands of recipients that actually want to receive them and avoid some of the autocratic spam filters with their false positives. That's the thing that hasn't been discussed much in this whole brouhaha: For certified delivery to work, recipients first have to agree that, yes, they actually want to get e-mail from a certified sender. They still have the choice to opt out, just like telling your personal spam filter to block a sender.

So I'm not quite sure what the coalition is referring to when they claim Certified Email will actually enable spammers. It sounds like spammers would first have to secure the consent of their recipients. And AOL's existing anti-spam and "white list" services remain the same as always, according to AOL.

One of the more interesting arguments from the coalition revolves around the creation of a class system on the Internet. It's hard to argue against the fact that those that want to pay more can get a higher class of service. It's also hard to imagine any type of business where customers that spend more over time get treated the same as those that spend less. Maybe I'm not idealistic enough, anymore, but that's just the way the world is. At least AOL isn't pulling a move like the airlines have where it seems coach class fliers get progressively fewer services each year. Perhaps that is ultimately the fear.

The coalition goes on to argue that AOL's existing e-mail service could be degraded over time if Certified Email becomes popular and makes a lot of money for the ISP - the old resources follow the dollars argument. Here again, that's a business decision that AOL would have to make, but realistically, I can't see it. Why would AOL, with the largest installed base of any ISP out there, do something to steam up the majority of its customers, all for a service with a very minimal revenue projection? And even if it were more than a drop in the bucket, AOL makes a good point: when the U.S. Postal Service introduced next-day delivery, did it abandon first class stamps?

Still in all, the customers will decide. I must point out that opinion coming in for our current poll on this topic is far and away against the use of certified sender technology. Sixty-eight percent of respondents at this point indicate that sets a dangerous precedent. And another 15 percent agree that it misses the point as far as reducing spam. Only nine percent say it's a good idea for reducing spam and another nine percent say it's not bad idea, but won't help reduce spam. We'll keep the poll up another week and see where we end up.